Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Terra Bite

I think I need to go visit Kirkland, WA now. They've got this new coffee shop, see, and I like coffee. First of all, the place is owned by a Google developer and is named "Terra Bite," which is hilarious enough for me to want to stop by. But the completely cool and completely crazy part is that they apparently work on a "voluntary" payment system. As in, you decide how much you feel like paying, and then you pay that much. No prices on the menu, no cash register, no tip jar. And they have free wireless! What more could I possibly want?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Well, That Was Interesting

I had a layover in Philadelphia this weekend, and as such, found myself in need of coffee. I was standing in line at "Java Jazz" admiring the tanalizing display of nearly topologically interesting objects nearby when the fire alarm went off. Bright white flashing light and a siren like what I'm sure a fire truck barreling down the nearby corridor would sound like. A few people looked annoyed and conused, and then a voice came over the intercom letting us know the fire alarm was going off (thanks for letting us know!) and that we should move to the nearest exit. A few people spoke more loudly so that their orders could be heard over the ruckus, and the TSA folk looked a little bewildered as to what to do. The pilot in line behind me was making wisecracks like, "Welcome to Philadelphia." I don't think he likes his job very much. After a few minutes, the alarm went off, as I pulled out my credit card to pay for my coffee. I was told their credit card machine was broken, which was FANTASTIC since I don't carry cash. I told her she should put a sign up saying the machine is broken, but apparently it is against airport rules to post handwritten signs, and she has to abide by those rules.

Now, something in the story I just told you strikes me as deeply wrong and twisted, but I'm not sure what it is exactly.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Supernova Remnant 1987A

Today marks the 20-year anniversary of the arrival of the neutrinos of SN1987A to Earth.
The defining dramatic burst of light for this explosive stelar death was first observed the following night. SN1987A is famous because it is the nearest supernova in modern times, i.e., since we started looking at such "guest stars" with telescopes and actually thinking about the associated physics. The now supernova remnant 1987A (pictured to the right when it was eight-ish years old) lives in the Large Magellenic Cloud (known to friends as the LMC), a dwarf galaxy orbiting our own Milky Way. The LMC is only 150000 or 170000 lightyears away, depending on who you ask. which is close enough to be seen with the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere.

Even though 20 neutrinos from SN1987A were detected (and some of these are still disputed as whether or not they are "true" detections) they were heralded as undeniable proof that indeed >99% of the energy released when certain stars die is in the form of these elusive tiny neutral particles.

So: happy birthday and thank you, SN1987A for exploding and sending us some of your neutrinos and light. Astronomers across the world celebrate you this week with conferences, drinks, and cookies. We especially appreciate it seeing as how no star in our own Galaxy has been so kind in the last few centuries or so.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Faculty Search

So there's this paper I've been stalling on writing for the last while. It's difficult to define "while" in this context, but there have been at least two months during which I feel like I just... haven't done anything. Or the things I've been working on haven't been the right things. Or all the time I think I've been working I've secretly been playing computer games without telling myself. Or perhaps with the quarter starting in January I managed to come across a veritable plethera of excuses for not working.

Once such excuse is that we've had four faculty candidates visit in the last six-ish weeks as part of our search for a theoretical cosmologist. The OSU Department of Astronomy being the graduate student friendly place that it is, this means that a handful of us (myself included) got to have lunch with all of the candidates, sans faculty. Well, all of the candidates except the unlucky one who visited in the middle of last week's snowstorm and University shutdown. I think the setup is fantastic: I'm a fairly judgemental person, and I like free food and talking about science. Then there's "speaker harassement," the hour-or-so the graduate students spend with the speaker (we do this for any colloquium speaker, not just job candidates) after their talk, harassing them about science and minute details of their talk. Different people react differently during speaker harassment; we often get visitors who treat speaker harassment as fun and interactive, asking all of us graduate students our names and what we're working on and with whom, but then we also get the ones who sit there like duds just waiting to be asked something. I have also noticed when eating out with visitors, in general, that some will make a point of asking me about my research, whereas others are satisfied by keeping the conversation in their own area of expertise. Normally, I just assume that those who don't ask me what I'm working on after a two-hour science-laden conversation simply don't care to know what I'm working on, and they don't care to know what I am working on because on some level they are a big fat self-centered jerk. Ah, but with the faculty candiates I found myself wondering: do they not care because they don't think of graduate students as Real People with Real Research, or do they not care because I give off "I AM UNINTERESTING" vibes, or do they not care because they are ignorant and afraid of anything outside of their own little niche?

In any case, I've been glad to note that I have enjoyed talking about science with each of the candidates—whatever writer's block I have isn't due to falling out of love with astrophysics—though it is quite entertaining to watch certain cosmologists' eyes glaze over when I mention I'm cataloging variable stars at the Galactic center. (Stars are so boring!) Sociologically, the entire process is quite entertaining to observe—entertaining because, as a lowly pion, I don't have to deal with the political decision-making goop of the whole thing. It's this intricate dance of, we're trying to impress the candidate so they'll like us, and the candidate is trying to impress us so we'll give them a, you know, job offer. It's also interesting learning about the job-search-and-pick process from this end (e.g., what exactly does one have to do in order to leave a "good impression"?) before I have to go through it myself. During a one-hour job talk, for example, it's probably a good idea to know whether or not your presentation has a burning desire to be two hours long. That falls under the "obvious" category. In the not-obvious category we have such examples as, how much of what kinds of science should I do now in order to ensure I'll be able to find a job when the future arrives?

It's just a hunch, but I'm going to guess that it's probably better for this paper to get itself finished so I can move on to something else. Rather than, you know, not.

Monday, February 19, 2007


I proctored an exam this morning for the class I'm TAing. One of the students called me "ma'am" more than once. He can't be more than four years younger than me, if that. I feel midly disturbed, kind of old, and, yet, oddly powerful.

I also had an amusing exchange with someone in the physics department today. It went something like this: "So what's your position over there in Astronomy?" "... I'm a second year grad student ..." "And they let you work on just whatever you want?!" "Well, yeah ..."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Snow (Half-)Day

Ohio State shut down today at 1:30p.m. This is because Columbus doesn't have enough snow plows in order to deal with a bit of snow—and apparently sleet and frozen slush isn't looked too kindly upon, either. It has actually quit snowing and sleeting for now, but soon it will be getting very very cold. How lovely.

We have a faculty candidate visiting today, and he was supposed to give a colloquium this afternoon at 3:30. There were donuts and everything. So when the announcement was made that the staff were headed home for the day, somehow two boxes of very delicious looking donuts wound up in our office. Shortly afterwards, rumor spread that the colloquium was being moved to tomorrow, followed by a crowd of people flocking around our door, with mumbles about how donuts go stale after a day. Because nothing says "Snow Day!" like donuts and coffee without an accompanying colloquium.

I was all excited about the donuts and the "ooh, snow!" until I realized that "school is closed" also means "campus buses will quit running today," and I didn't actually want to walk home in the dark ice snow slush sleet badness. There is a layer of ice forming on everything, and I'm now mildly afraid that it'll discover the power lines, do a little tango, and there will be more badness. Weather is intertaining and all, but it's an inherently outside phenomenon, and I don't remember giving it permission to futz with what's going on inside. I was all stoked for working today—I have this fun variable infrared source that's also friends with a few masers and X-ray emission I'm trying to figure out—but noooooo ... I had to go home. And what if the university is still being a bunch of wusses tomorrow and the bus isn't running and I have to take a walk in the cold iciness just to get some work done? Life is so unfair.

And then I saw my car. Poor car. I so excited the first time my car got to learn about snow, I took a picture. But now? Now my car is learning about snow drifts and sheens of bumpy ice (see right, see left). At least it's not one of those sucker cars parked on the curbs of busy streets that now have frozen muddy slush all over them.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I Do It For The Money

CNN has an article today listing the 50 highest paid professions in the U.S., based on median annual salary. Here's my summary of the top 30:

1. Doctor: $177,690

2. Doctor: $174,240

3. Doctor: $171,810

4. Doctor: $163,410

5. Doctor: $160,660

6. Internists, General: $156,550 <-- what does that even mean?!

7. Head Doctor: $146,150

8. Doctor: $146,080

9. Doctor: $140,370

10. Person with big corner office and no hobbies: $139,810

11. Doctor: $139,230

12. Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers: $135,040

13. Doctor: $133,680

14. Doctor: $111,250

15. Lawyers: $110,520

16. Air Traffic Controllers: $105,820

17. "Managers": $105,470

18. Computer people: $102,360

19. "Managers": $101,990

20. Astronomers: $101,360

21. "Managers": $99,140

22. "Managers": $98,510

23. Petroleum Engineers: $97,350 <-- oil, yick

24. "Managers": $96,620

25. Former Lawyers: $95,570

26. Doctor: $95,500

27. "Managers": $95,470

28. Computer People: $94,030

29. Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates: $91,500

30. Physicists: $91,480

Take that, you "real" physicists.

Also note that all those doctors and lawyers (and probably many of the managers) had to have lots of icky schooling after college—icky because they probably had to pay lots and lots for it instead of, you know, not.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Global Warming is Bad

Now that I've ranted about how cold it is, I'm going to rant about how warm it is. Whereby "rant," I mean something much much more than that, but you'll see.

On Monday we discussed in Coffee the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report to policy makers. You can see the full thing here (in pdf form); all of the figures I'm showing are snatched directly from there.

The report is entitled "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis," and it essentially describes the unambiguous evidence that Earth's climate is going through rapid transitions, and this warming is unambiguously due to human action. The report also outlines several climate change models, and describes how even the most conservative and optimistic models predict drastic and nearly irreversible changes. What is even more terrifying is that, scientifically, their approach to the the entire thing is incredibly conservative and almost certainly underestimates the problems. For example, the report completely ignores "catastrophes," rapid events that could strongly alter sea levels and atmospheric content (like the Arctic ice cap melting, or all of the frozen peat in Siberia undergoing a phase transition [i.e., melting] and releasing a bunch of methane into the air all at once). They ignore possible catastrophes because, frankly, they can't be well modeled yet, and things that can't be well modeled have no business being in models.

The graph on the left shows the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2 10,000 years; the inset shows a blow-up of the last two hundred years. Clearly, something happened that made this trend go from slowly increasing to increasing really-really-fast. The report has similar graphs, showing disturbingly similar trends, for both methane and nitrous oxide. On the right-hand side of these graphs you can see the ") in the air in the lastradiative forcing" due to each of these gases. Basically, a certain amount of gas in the air can cause the atmosphere to either warm up or cool down. (The warming up is what is commonly referred to as the "greenhouse effect.") What I find painfully ironic about relative radiative forcing amounts is that apparently it wasn't until around the 1950s that people actually started noticing the increase in temperature of Earth's atmosphere due to gases like CO2. This is because the Earth's temperature wasn't actually increasing all that much until the 1950s. Why not? There were certainly pollutants in the air from cars and factories pre-1950. The reason is because the ickier pollutants—think nasty particulate smoke from Industrial Revolution era factories—acted as a coolant, effectively counterbalancing the warming effect from the other gases. Once people realized that "smog is bad" and started cleaning up cities, the greenhouse gases were able to start really doing their thing. On the right is a series of plots showing this increase in temperature and its affect on the average sea level and the amount of snow in the northern hemisphere (between March and April) since 1850 or so. The smooth black curves represent averages for a given decade, while the grey dots are actual yearly values. Note, especially for the snow and temperature plots, that just because the amount of snow is up or the temperature is down in Columbus, OH for a given week, month, or year does not mean that the average global temperature is decreasing.

The report then goes on to describe, and show, that these observed changes are not due to purely natural causes. "Natural" here essentially means solar activity and volcanos, whereas examples of anthropogenic (human) causes include pretty much everything that separates first world and third world countries. One of the neat things about this report is that it culls information from a variety of scientific reports; instead of the authors running their favorite model, they cite results averaged over 58 models.

Then comes the nightmarish predictions, as summarized by the graph to the left. The plot shows global surface warming as observed over the last century (the top panel of the previous plot, remember) and as predicted for the next century. The bottommost model curve, the yellow-orange one, is if we hold the as-is atmospheric content completely constant: not another engine turning on, not another cow pooping, just—statis. And, behold, the yellow curve is increasing, and a thousand years from now the changes we have caused to the atmosphere would still be noticeable. And look: the other curves (red, green, and blue), show even higher increases in temperature. The models take things like population and economic growth into account differently, and the report says there isn't any reason to favor one over the others. It is interesting, though, that all of the models have the global population peaking around 2050. The report also gives predictions for distributions of temperature change across the globe; those of us living in the northern hemisphere should realize that the predicted average change in temperature for where we live is about twice the global average shown on the above plot.

One of the scariest parts of these predictions is the increase in sea level. If in 2100 the average global temperature were to level out at the amount of the green line in the above plot, then the sea level would rise by about half a meter by 2300, due solely to the fact that water expands as it warms. That is, this prediction of half a meter completely neglects the fact that glaciers and ice caps will simultaneously be melting and increasing the amount of liquid water in the oceans. Think of your favorite seaside city (Boston? New York? San Francisco? Hong Kong? Singapore?), and then wonder what it will be like in a few hundred years.

So now the question is: what does humankind need to do in order to save the world and ourselves? The obvious is that if we are going to do this without simultaneously butchering the economy, then someone needs to conjure up an alternative fuel, and fast. Meanwhile, converting to soley nuclear fuel for electricity (and everything else from heat to cars being electric) would give us some time to figure all of this out without continuing to be so worsening the problem trying to solve it. But individuals on their own aren't going to make the requisite lifestyle changes; I for one know I care, but when I am cold I am going to turn my heat up. It's the classic prisoner's dilemma: it is better off for the group if no one drives big cars, but it is better for me if I drive a big car. And this is why God invented Big Government to help force people to make the right decisions, like chosing the correct lightbulb.

If I remember correctly, the IPCC will be releasing another report in April with suggestions for just what global and local changes should be made.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


A slightly belated christmas present came in the mail today. I'm so psyched, but unfortunately, it's a short-sleeve t-shirt, and while I am wearing it, no one can tell. It'll be our little secret for now.

On the front:

And on the back ...

This is, of course, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) spectrum, with the COBE data on top of the predicted model, where the errorbars/points are grossly oversized, and it is, of course, from xckd. Because where else would you see the ACM mentioned in a comic—let alone one that is also discussing the inherent hilarity of trancendental numbers disturbing cozy close to integers?
And now I must stop, lest I either link to or show every other comic on the site. Bitches.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Living in a Dorm v. Living in an Apartment

I've heard this week described as "the coldest night of the year." How that works, in a temporal sense, I don't really understand, but I believe it regardless of any such minor details. And for the first time since starting graduate school, I'm really missing living in a dorm. Specifically, I miss living in the dorm I lived in for four years: Random Hall. I don't miss having to share a kitchen with 13 other people (plus whatever friends and significant others might be using my oven and leaving a mess on my kitchen table)—it, in fact, feels really nice and grown up to not get angry emails about the dirty dishes that have made a nice comfortable home in my sink while the clean dishes become better friends with the inside of the dishwasher. No, no no, I miss the everso Random quality of it being below zero outside (remember, for example, that nice winter three years ago when the Patriots played in a stadium that had half its seats filled with snow?) and so hot in my room that I had to crack open the window. Random has this freaking huge boiler in the basement, which, well, puts out a lot of heat. Typically radiators are only kept on in the kitchens, lounges, and bathrooms—something's wrong with you if you're capable of sleeping an entire night with the radiator on in your room. I miss being able to walk around barefoot with short sleeves on, mindless of the mind-numbingly cold outside "real world." I miss not being afraid I'm going to wound up frozen to the toilet seat if I go to the bathroom as soon as I get home. I also miss not having to worry about such things as, how much will money will it cost me if I turn the thermostat up a few degrees?

On the other hand, I'm not exactly a big fan of doing dishes ... or being annoyed when other people don't do theirs ...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Happy February

Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI

The 2007 AAS calendar's picture for February is the above image of the "Integral Sign Galaxy" (UGC 3697). The blue is neutral hydrogen, from the VLA, on top of optical image. The warp is thought to be due to a small companion galaxy gravitationally tugging on this one—but really—it's just so that we can have a galaxy that looks like an integral sign. Other than π, what other mathematical symbol could possibly be written in the stars?